There are some people in the Irish music industry who know where the bodies are buried, but Pat Egan doesn't. He might point you to a field somewhere in the Midlands, but he doesn't know the precise location. That's what comes from being one of the good guys, someone who has been at the coalface of the Irish music industry when there was little or no infrastructure nor acumen. Wisely, naturally, Egan made friends with most and managed to tell the tales.
Now in his mid-70s, he has written his autobiography, Backstage Pass: A Life in Show Business, and while it isn’t a scabrous tell-all collection of memories, it provides not only perceptive (and eyebrow-raising) behind-the-scenes observations of some very famous people at work and play, but also his own views on the current state of music promotion, venue hire and how he managed to swim to the shore before the sharks got their teeth into him.
He embedded himself into the nascent Irish show business in the early to mid-1960s. Not having impressed his teachers at school, he says he didn’t have any great ambitions as such. “You had your interests, be they sport or movies or music. I knew I loved the music, and I knew I would have loved to work in that area, but I had no idea how to get into it.”
He started by writing to a few presenters he heard on his grandmother’s radio. One of them was Ken Stewart, who as well as being at that time an RTÉ broadcaster was also the Irish correspondent for the US music industry bible Billboard. On receipt of Egan’s communiques, Stewart “invited me to have a chat about the music business. At that time, one of the radio programmes was sponsored by Chivers jam, and it was like a Juke Box Jury thing. The presenter would play a few pop songs and a select panel of judges would give their opinion on them. That would have been the very first time I gave my thoughts on music, which back then was mostly hospital requests and programmes sponsored by the likes of Waltons. When my brother started working, he got a radio, the first one we ever had in the house. That’s when I started listening to Radio Luxembourg, which was the beginning of something very different.”
Before he could say “hey there, pop pickers”, Egan was juggling occasional radio punditry with deejaying at several of Dublin’s beat clubs and writing regularly for Spotlight. While most of his former schoolmates were at tech college or riding out their apprenticeships (“I didn’t fancy a trade – I couldn’t hold a paint brush, a hammer or a screwdriver”), Egan was living a dream that was about to develop into a lifetime career. “At that point, the business was full of opportunities everywhere, whether you wanted to have a record store, be a manager, a promoter, a bar owner, a club owner, a singer or a songwriter.”
As it transpired, with the exception of singer and songwriter, Egan turned his hand to all of the above. In the 1970s and 1980s he opened six record stores, he was one of the primary Irish music promoters of the 1980s, he owned a pub in Temple Bar and a club by the Liffey, and he managed several Irish music acts. In between all of this and a certain amount of domestic upheaval, he also worked with the likes of Billy Connolly, Brendan O'Carroll, Freddie Starr, Van Morrison, Queen, Paul McGrath, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, Marianne Faithfull, Al Martino, Status Quo, the Irish Tenors, Sir George Martin, Dame Shirley Bassey and Lou Reed.
Egan’s tales are often amusing but never at the expense of the subject. Fans of Reed and O’Carroll might need to rethink their admiration for them, while stories of Clapton, Starr, Faithfull and McGrath (to name but four) are full of drama, tragedy and human frailty. Of all the people he worked with over the years, however, it is Scottish comedian/actor Billy Connolly – who wrote the foreword to the book – that stands out as a favourite. Interestingly, Egan never crossed the divide that distances the “talent” from the paid professional. “I never regarded myself as Billy’s friend. He’s an exceptional person in that fame wasn’t something he used in a bad way. He liked things to be done properly, and he liked his comforts, but there was no ego to the man.”
Egan’s life as a promoter changed radically from the 1990s onwards, he says, pointing to his reluctance to “dive into some of the bigger deals with the bigger acts, which I lost out on and didn’t build on” and his in-built sense of civility. A memoir at his age might signify a retreat from the fray, but he isn’t bowing out just yet. He knows that while many venues in Dublin are effectively run by “one company, and availability is really restricted”, he is looking towards the nostalgia market, which, he says, “has been totally ignored, a lot of people out there don’t have any shows to go to.” He is currently in the process of securing a venue for these types of shows, he adds, a venue that isn’t under the ownership or operated by either of the country’s two leading music promoters, MCD and Aiken Promotions. There is life (and canny business acumen still) in the old dog yet, then?
“I’m not at the coalface anymore,” he allows, “and I wouldn’t want to be with the pressure these days. I enjoy it, I make a few quid, I lose a few quid, and I like seeing people come to the shows and hearing music that they connect with. That’s the bottom line: connection is what it’s all about. I just want to be relevant to a certain part of the market that I know is still out there. Retire? Never, because that’s what I do.”
Backstage Pass: A Life in Show Business by Pat Egan is published by Orpen Press,€17.99. Royalties from the sale of the book will go to St Audoen’s National School in Cook Street, Dublin 8